This weekend Seychelles will go to the polls to elect a new National Assembly after President Michel's Parti Lepep led a National Assembly vote to dissolve itself in July this year.
Elections were due to take place in 2012 but the vote means new elections had to be held within 90 days. The dissolution was the end result of a sequence of events which began with the idea of reform and an apparent attempt to make elections more fair and transparent. But the process has ended with a situation where the election may produce a result less representative of political feeling in Seychelles than the presidential elections in May, won by James Michel.
After the presidential elections in May 2011 it appeared that the newly re-elected President Michel might commit to electoral reform. The presidential elections took place amid allegations of corruption, unfairness and of a lack of transparency. Independent observers made various post-election recommendations. A common theme was the creation of an electoral commission to replace the single electoral commissioner - although observers were complimentary about Hendrick Gappy himself.
From the Commonwealth Expert Team preliminary report:
From the Commission de L'Ocean Indien Organisation International preliminary report:
From the SADC Electoral Commissions Forum preliminary report:
In his victory speech Michel said:
“In the New Seychelles we shall continue to put in place and strengthen our legal and institutional frameworks to ensure the progress of our democracy. It is my aim to improve on our achievements and to reinforce the rule of law, good governance and transparency.”
This seemed to suggest that Michel was willing to go ahead with reforms and wanted to improve democracy in Seychelles. Of course, talking about change is not enough. Michel's own government launched a Constitutional Reform Committee in 2008 shortly after the last round of elections which promised much and resulted in little. As a consequence the 2011 elections were were characterised by failures similar to those in the 2006 and 2007 elections.
But Michel has moved more quickly this time. Within weeks of the presidential election a new bill was tabled to create an electoral commission. The bill was presented to the National Assembly but rejected by opposition leader Wavel Ramkalawan and his party, the Seychelles National Party (SNP). However, in a dramatic series of events one member of the SNP - Jane Carpin - crossed the floor to give Parti Lepep the 2/3 of the vote it needed to pass the bill. Michel then tried to dissolve the assembly, again using Carpin's vote to get the number of votes required. But dissolution was temporarily delayed by two appeals to the Constitutional Court arguing that a vote for dissolution had to be scheduled in advance of the vote itself so that members of the assembly could make sure they were present to vote. The appeals were upheld, but a subsequent scheduled vote for dissolution still passed, again with Carpin's vote. This happened despite the fact that Ramkalawan tried to have Carpin removed as a member of the assembly on the grounds that she was chosen by the SNP to be one of their proportionally elected seats rather than being directly elected to the assembly.
In a detailed independent observer report the Commonwealth Expert Team elaborated on its recommendation to put in place an electoral commission:
"[O]ur concern is that while [government officials] may very well go through the exercise of establishing such a Commission in fulfilment of our recommendation, the appointees to the Commission must be from a broad cross-section of stakeholders and the appointment process must also be, and be seen to be, a truly independent process."
Whether the appointees to the Commission are "from a broad cross-section of stakeholders" can be questioned. Hendrick Gappy was picked to lead the Commission, and although it will undoubtedly benefit from his experience a completely fresh start might have been helpful to make sure the appointment process is "seen to be" truly independent. Unfortunately, however, an in-depth analysis of the independence of each member of the Commission is beyond the scope of this article.
It is more important in the long-term to look at how members of the Commission are chosen and whether this is an independent process. This is set out in s.2 (f) of the 6th Amendment Bill 2011 which gives a replacement for Art 115 of the Constitution. The relevant substitute section (S.115 A. (1)) states:
"The Commission shall consist of a Chairperson and four Members all of whom shall be appointed by the President selected from seven candidates … proposed by the Constitutional Appointments Authority …"
The Constitutional Appointments Authority consists of three members, one of whom is chosen by the president and one by the leader of the opposition. Those two members then agree on a chairman - although if no agreement can be made by the members then the president can choose and appoint the chairman himself. It should be apparent that this process gives the president effective control over a majority of appointments to the Constitutional Appointments Authority should he desire it.
The Constitutional Appointments Authority then proposes seven members for the Electoral Commission and the president has a veto over two members (or 30%) of proposed candidates. No veto is given to members of any other party.
From this it seems the process of choosing who will be on the Electoral Commission is compromised at two levels of the selection process. In other words the Commission cannot be guaranteed to be independent and the substantive reform in the 6th Amendment Bill does not appear to live up to Michel's claims that he will "reinforce the rule of law, good governance and transparency". The reality of reform seems to have been lost along the way.
It was important to independent observers that the appointment process of the Commission was "seen to be" independent. This ties in with a current problem in Seychelles - the belief that politics is corrupt and a resulting scepticism and fear that reduces democratic legitimacy in the country. We should, therefore, also look at whether the bill is seen to be fair, as well as whether it is fair.
The bill was introduced to the National Assembly and passed with no support from the opposition, except for Carpin. This makes it look like the bill was forced through the assembly rather than passing with unified political will. The lack of support also suggests that a reasonable number of people may think that the bill is unfair. Both of these factors, the apparent force and the lack of support, undermine the image of the bill as fair.
Subsequent political fighting and infighting has also marred perception of the bill. The reaction from Ramkalawan, trying to remove Carpin from the Assembly, and the actions of Carpin herself can both be called into question and serve to make recent events about politics and power rather than substantive reform. Neither the bill, nor the way the bill was made into law, seem to embody a spirit of transparency, good governance, or fairness.
The content of the 6th Amendment Bill, and the way it came into force, could be excused as merely unfortunate; an example of parties failing to work together effectively and not considering the implications of their actions. At the very least a case could be made that both parties, and individuals such as Carpin, were trying to do what they thought was right in the national interest.
It is more difficult to say the same thing about the dissolution of the assembly.
After succeeding in passing the bill to create a new electoral commission Michel chose to try to dissolve the National Assembly. It is difficult to understand why Michel may have thought dissolving the assembly could be in the national interest.
It could be argued that the Assembly was ineffective due to the SNP's resistance to taking part in the legislative process after the results of the presidential elections which it deemed unfair. However, from Michel's point of view it is still difficult to see why dissolution was the best option for the country. If Michel believes that effectiveness of the Assembly rests in making the laws he believes are right then he should have been content: he could pass laws with his party and the support of Jane Carpin. Perhaps Michel believes it is important to have a rigorous opposition to fuel debate about the laws that are made. But this is a difficult argument to make given that no opposition is adequately prepared to fight an election. Dissolving the Assembly and having an election now will not produce at atmosphere of greater debate. Instead, with SNP and other parties boycotting, the Assembly is likely to end up more one-sided than before and with less debate. It should be noted that the non-boycotting party, the Popular Democratic Movement, has been newly set up and there are rumours that it has been set up with help from Parti Lepep to maintain the perception of a multi-party democracy.
So why dissolve the assembly? The obvious answer is in order to win. Michel may have believed that he could guarantee quick and easy victory with a forced election now. A divided opposition has completely collapsed. In its place are several small parties which will fight over and split the votes which would have gone to the SNP, leaving Parti Lepep with a large majority.
The problem with this is not so much the fact that there may have been political reasons at the heart of the decision to dissolve the Assembly. The greater problem is Michel's portrayal of himself as trying to reform the electoral process. How does holding a quick election fit in with Michel's stated desire to reform Seychelles politics into something more democratic, fair and transparent? After elections in 2006 and 2007 Michel promised reform. He failed to deliver. After the presidential elections this year he promised reform and delivered a questionable bill for a new electoral commission. But within days of passing the bill the assembly was dissolved and another election had been forced. Realistically, 90 days is not enough time for a commission to effectively plan and oversee an election.
The single reform which was put in place has therefore been rendered practically ineffective for the current election, even leaving aside all questions of whether the commission is inherently compromised. Yet again an entire electoral cycle will have passed with no effective electoral reform. It therefore has to be questioned whether Michel wants elections that he runs in to be democratically transparent. By Monday we will have to wait another five years - half a decade, until 2016 - for the people of Seychelles to have another chance to speak.
Calling an election because you may win is not undemocratic. But if Michel thought electoral reforms were important, surely he would make sure they were cemented before the election. If he thought the check provided by an opposition party was important he would allow an opposition time to prepare rather than guaranteeing himself five years with a weaker opposition than he has now. The election may not be entirely undemocratic, but the way it has come about raises questions about whether Michel is sincere in speeches where he presents himself as holding democracy and the national interest above all else. He is a politician, and self interest, perhaps, still comes first.
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